May 6, 1865: Sherman and Chase and suffrage for the freedmen

Earlier today, Allen Gathman, on his blog Seven Score and Ten, posted a letter from Chief Justice Salmon Chase to Major-General John Schofield, which was addressed 150 years ago today (May 7, 1865).  The important passage of Chase’s letter spoke of specific rights for the freedmen – the right to vote:

I have, since his accession had several conversations with President Johnson, and think myself authorized to say that he desires the earliest possible loyal reorganization of the late insurgent States. He thinks that this reorganization should be the work of the people themselves, acting in their original sovereign capacity, and would be willing to aid their action in any proper way, as, for example, by the enrollment of all the loyal citizens, preparatory to the election of delegates to a convention. in this enrollment he would prefer that the old constitutional rule in North Carolina which recognized all freemen as voters, should be followed, rather than the rule the new constitution, which excludes all freemen of color.

Consider the addressee here.  Here 150 years later, would Chief Justice John Roberts directly address General John F. Campbell over in Kabul, Afghanistan?  Perhaps, but not on policy matters, I would venture to guess.  I would offer, however, that Schofield in 1865 and Campbell here in 2015 are both involved with “reconstruction” efforts to some degree. Both are dealing with questions of how to implement suffrage (perhaps less so in 2015 as we were in 2004). The major difference between lay in the object of reconstruction.  Schofield was a military commander orchestrating the reconstruction of a state in OUR country… not attempting to repair some other country.

At the same time Chase was conversing with Schofield, he also had similar correspondence with Major-General William T. Sherman.  That commander wrote a letter to Chase only a day before, May 6.  And the contents were not exactly in agreement with Chase’s opinion.  Let me offer it here in whole, instead of dicing Sherman’s words:

Dear Sir: On reaching this ship late last night I found your valued letter, with the printed sheet, which I have also read, but not yet fully matured.  I am not yet prepared to receive the negro on terms of political equality for the reasons that it will arouse passions and prejudices at the North, which superadded to the causes yet dormant at the South, might rekindle the war whose fires are now dying out, and by skillful management might be kept down. As you must observe, I prefer to work with known facts than to reason ahead to remote conclusions that by slower and natural laws may be reached without shock. By way of illustration, we are now weather bound; is it not better to lay quiet at anchor till these white-cap breakers look less angry and the southwest wind shifts? I think all old sailors will answer yes, whilst we, impatient to reach our goal, are tempted to dash through, at risk of life and property. I am willing to admit that the conclusions you reach by pure mental process may be all correct, but don’t you think it better first to get the ship of state in some order, that it may be handled and guided? Now at the South all is pure anarchy. The military power of the United States cannot reach the people who are spread over a vast surface of country. We can control the local State capitals, and it may be slowly shape political thoughts, but we cannot combat existing ideas with force. I say honestly that the assertion openly of your ideas as a fixed policy of our Government, to be backed by physical power, will produce new war, and one which from its desultory character will be more bloody and destructive than the last.

Our own armed soldiers have prejudices that, right or wrong, should be consulted, and I am rejoiced that you, upon whom devolves so much, are aiming to see facts and persons with your own eye. I believe you will do me the credit of believing that I am as honest, sincere, true, and brave as the average of our kind, and I say that to give all loyal negroes the same political status as white “voters” will revive the war and spread its field of operations. Why not, therefore, trust to the slower and not less sure means of statesmanship? Why not imitate the example of England in allowing causes to work out their gradual solution instead of imitating the French, whose political revolutions have been bloody and have actually retarded the development of political freedom? I think the changes necessary in the future can be made faster and more certain by means of our Constitution than by any plan outside of it. If, now, we go outside of the Constitution for a means of change, we rather justify the rebels in their late attempt, whereas now, as General Schofield tells us, the people of the South are ready and willing to make the necessary changes without shock or violence. I, who have felt the past war as bitterly and keenly as any man could, confess myself “afraid” of a new war, and a new war is bound to result from the action you suggest of giving to the enfranchised negroes so large a share in the delicate task of putting the Southern States in practical working relations with the General Government.

With great respect,
W. T. SHERMAN,  Major-general.

I think with full 150 years of hindsight, we can agree Sherman was on the wrong side of this issue.  But at the same time, we would do dis-service to generalize and paint Sherman into some corner of history with just this letter in hand.  Perhaps it is best to just let Sherman’s written words speak for him, instead of trying to impose what we think he must have thought.

Regardless of where you want to place Sherman … or Chase… or Schofield at this point in time, the issue of suffrage for the freedmen was one clearly identified as a central topic, if not THE central topic, for Reconstruction.  And reading the correspondence you can see this topic was not as clean and clear such as we might consider, with our view 150 years removed.

History is often a story of simple ideas being applied to a complex reality.  We should embrace that complexity, for with it comes true understanding of what transpired.  And I would offer that no more genuine and simple idea was more complex in implementation as universal suffrage.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, pages 410-1 and 427.)

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